Letting Him Go
Baby J showed up in the afternoon when all of the kids were just home from school. To the surprise of the DCS escort, we met him in the driveway like a pack of revelers. She brought in the 10-day-old baby who weighed less than any baby I had ever had at birth-weight. He was cradled in the deepest part of the carrier with the straps fastened in the smallest position. He wore a blue onesie and was covered with a blanket and was fast asleep, and we were all enamored — fascinated, as if we had never seen a newborn before.
The DCS case manager asked that our children step out of the room so she could give us the background. It was, what we had been told would be, a typical scenario. Baby tested positive for substance at the hospital. No prenatal care. Spent 10 days in NICU for respiratory distress due to premature birth and exposure to opiates. He was placed directly into foster care after discharge. They’d be having a meeting with parents or parties involved on Friday, and he’d possibly leave then. She left paperwork: his birth report, his identification card (so that he could get medical care through the state), and a bag of belongings his parents had given him, diapers, and hospital formula.
He began to squirm and contort his face — which I took as an invitation to wedge him out of his seat and put him to my neck. His tuft of ram-straight downy hair somehow surprised us all. The fact that he didn’t smell like us, oddly surprised us as well. The crowd gasped at his tiny body and stared in fascination as he stretched and moved and came to life, privileged as we were to get a glimmer of his eyes, curious as we were to their color. Everyone wanted to touch him, hold him, welcome him. I was deeply moved by his vulnerable state. But of course, this only appealed all the more to my protective instincts, and my maternal feelings simply and immediately, enveloped him.
The days passed by blissfully. The baby tucked in a crib in a corner of our room, woke every 2–3 hours for a feeding, and shortly after would drift back into his newborn delirium of sleep. I remembered that the first three months of a child’s life often seem more like a fourth trimester. We could easily see how he was folded inside his mother’s womb, and we swaddled him up for soothing. Though the crib had been erected for over a week, it was a bit of a shock and an utter delight to finally see a baby in it as I passed by multiple times a day with laundry baskets. I noticed immediately how much easier it was to care for him physically since I was not in any kind of pain from birthing him myself. The lack of physical discomfort and yet the presence of a newborn almost felt incongruous, like something was ominously missing.
As is required, I took him to the pediatrician. She remarked at how wonderful he was, and I proudly agreed. I noticed then that I was truly and already proud of him somehow, proud of the way he was thriving despite all he had been through and all that he lacked. He weighed in at 8 pounds 2 ounces, but she wanted to switch his formula to a more digestible one. She gave me 6 cans of samples and told me to come back for more when I needed them. I carted him out of the office, ran into a neighbor, chatted a bit and took him home. Business as usual.
Joe and I were tired but we never resented his presence. It was a pleasure to feed him, hold him, and care for him. He needed us in the most elemental way. We pondered about how, with all of our capabilities and coping strategies, the demands of it would be so difficult for anyone who was substance dependant to do the same. We wondered how long he would be with us. We wondered about his parents and how they were feeling. Were they grieving? Did they care? Were they abusing more to numb their sadness, or were they refraining — determined to get him back? There were so many unknowns. We ask questions. People ask questions. We don’t know.
All that I did know was that I was falling for him. I could not find a way to guard my heart. I knew that he wouldn’t stay, and yet with each passing day I found myself more attached than the day before. I would remember his mother and would remind myself that he was not mine, but no matter. My love would not listen to my logic. In disobedience, it justified lounging with him on my chest for an entire luxurious afternoon, just breathing him in as he slept, while I swatted away the annoying whisper of housework.
Inevitably, we got the call that he would leave. “The case manager will pick him up tomorrow at one,” Joe said with a catch in his throat. The word “okay” somehow eked past my lips, but then as I was making dinner, I suddenly felt not hungry, disgusted in fact, by the food I was making. I poured a glass of wine instead of eating. For the sake of my other children I pretended to be fine. “It will not be necessary for them to suffer this with me,” I thought. But in the same way that I could not prevent my fondness for the baby to take hold, I could likewise not prevent the tears from streaming down my cheeks at the thought of his departure.
And I began to pack his things.
I could hardly sleep that night knowing that I would never see him again. How odd — I realized that someday I could pass him on the street and not know him. This baby had been in my bed, and yet he will be a stranger as an adult. His grandmother had moved from another state over the weekend and had said that she would care for him. I knew that if he were my grandson, I would do the same. His grandma felt like the only person I could actually give him to, and I forced myself to fantasize about her devotion to him. I imagined her rocking him, and loving him, and humming to him, in order to quell the growing grief inside of me.
Nick showed up. He was an hour late. He didn’t know that every minute I waited for him was torture. He was a twenty-something, gym-going young man, and he wouldn’t understand why I could hardly breathe as I insisted on buckling up the baby in the carseat myself so that he wouldn’t get pinched by careless hands. He wouldn’t know that I didn’t even want the baby in a car at all. He wouldn’t know how excrutiating this was. He would just look at me blankly. I felt foolish standing there — a wreck of a spectacle. But then I didn’t care. I loved that baby, and I was losing him, and it was hard.
Leaning over, I said goodbye. I blessed and kissed him on his head and watched him go out my front door as he slept — just the way he had come in. The emptiness and the hollowness felt physical as I buckled over and sobbed. Here is the throbbing I thought, here it is — babies always come with pain. My body suddenly craved him but he was gone. The crib was empty. My arms were empty. Again. This quietness brought the wounds of years of infertility out of the shadows and into the present and it hurt deeply. I demanded that God protect him. “You take care of him,” I said out loud. “You watch after him!” I yelled fist in the air. I prayed a lot in the days to follow. My usual music was silenced, and I moved about my work methodically. Friends came with flowers and food and tokens of their love for me, and I wept all the more at their sweetness. Why God why? Over and over I thought about the cruelty of what I had wrought upon myself, how ridiculous I was to love so recklessly!
And as God does, He answered my questions eventually, quietly, from the deep spaces where He abides. It came to me that lots of people can take in babies. Lots of people can love babies. He made them lovable, after all. It is, however, a special calling, my calling in fact, to be able to let them go. I’ve heard other people say over and over as a resounding sentiment, “Oh, I could never do foster care, because I couldn’t give them back,” and it occurred to me that I, in fact, can. And I did. Should fostering be left to the uninvested then? And should I simply bow out for caring too much? For it hurting too much? No.
I will trust the Lord with these little ones and
I will love them and
I will let them go.